The late Fred Rogers, star and host of the long-running television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, once gave a touching endorsement of the importance of caring. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,’” he shared. “To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
It’s a powerful anecdote, one Rogers used throughout his life and one that people still turn to in times of crisis. But why do humans care at all — about others, about ourselves, about the world at large? The concept of care is a subject that the field of neuroscience has been paying increasing attention to over the past decade, according to Psychology Today, and the findings warrant a closer look.
What does it mean to care?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, care is defined as “the process of protecting someone or something and providing what that person or thing needs.”
But why do we care? In a piece in The New York Times entitled “We May Be Born With An Urge to Help,” Michael Tomasello, a developmental psychologist, suggests that helping is “a natural inclination, not something imposed by parents or culture.” Similarly, Frans de Waal, a primatologist, says, “We’re preprogrammed to reach out. Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.”
Words like “empathy,” “compassion,” and “altruism” are often used as synonyms for care, but there are important differences between the terms.
At its essence, empathy is about feeling into another person’s emotional state, whether that is grief, anger, elation, or something else — acting as a sort of “mirror system,” per Psychology Today. Compassion is described by scientists as “sensitivity to the suffering of another, coupled with a desire to alleviate their suffering” and possibly to do something about that suffering.
Altruism and altruistic behavior, on the other hand, do not necessarily stem from compassion — altruism can be motivated by “a need to feel good about oneself, a desire for social recognition, or to satisfy a sense of duty or obligation,” the website explains.
The benefits of caring for others
Scientific research on resilience has established that having a sense of purpose in life and providing support to others is good for us. There’s even a phenomenon known as “helper’s high,” in which altruism leads to the release of feel-good chemicals and an activation of the part of the brain that is stimulated by pleasure. But there’s a measurable physical component to helping others as well. Volunteering for a charitable organization or cause, for instance, has been shown to lower cortisol levels, The New York Times reports.
In a similar vein, providing emotional support can also bring clarity for yourself.
“One of the best things you can do is call someone else facing a similar problem and talk them through it,” author and psychologist Adam Grant told the outlet. “When you talk other people through their problems, you come up with wiser perspectives and solutions for yourself.”
Self-care versus selfishness
While there are myriad benefits to helping others, neglecting yourself in the process can lead to burnout, poor health, and other undesirable consequences. As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. That’s where self-care comes in.
Psychologist and Stanford University lecturer Kelly McGonigal noted that guilt often motivates us to put our own needs behind others, particularly if we have responsibilities as caregivers.
“One of the things that you come across all the time is the idea that ‘I can’t invest in things that are good for me, because it’s taking away from my ability to be a good parent or do what I need to do at work,’” McGonigal told The New York Times in another article, titled “Why Self-Care Isn’t Selfish.” She added: “Wouldn’t it be great if we learn to lean in to our interdependence, and that we can actually take some kind of joy in knowing that when I take care of myself, I often am also taking care of others?”
The term “self-care” is often bandied about in the media and tends to be associated with acts like napping, getting a massage, or practicing meditation, but McGonigal stresses that there’s a more important component that impacts your long-term happiness: setting priorities and boundaries, and finding meaning in your life.
“Everybody understands that relaxation and rest is important,” she said. “So there are aspects of self-care related to sleep — everyone should take a bath, light candles. There’s this idea that we need to calm down. But what can you experience today that is going to fill you with the positive emotions you need to do the most important things in your life? It’s about refueling yourself in order to engage with life.”
So how can we cultivate more care and compassion in ourselves, and for ourselves? Much as there are many ways to help, there are many ways to learn or expand our capacity for compassion. Here are some simple suggestions for getting started:
- Find volunteering opportunities in your community via organizations like VolunteerMatch and DoSomething.org
- Ask people “How are you?” — and mean it
- Start a gratitude journal, and list what you’re grateful for in yourself, in your loved ones, and in the world at large
- Integrate random acts of kindness into your everyday life
- Reach out to an old friend or acquaintance (they’ll appreciate it more than you think)
- Spend more time outdoors, taking in all that the natural world has to offer us